Menu Adam R Brown

Notes navigation: Browse by titleBrowse by authorSubject index

Fearon: Rationalist explanations for war

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Fearon. 1995. Rationalist explanations for war. International Organization 49 (3): 379-414.

In Brief

"On close inspection none of the rationalist arguments advanced in the literature holds up as an explanation because none addresses or adequately resolves the central puzzle, namely, that war is costly and risky, so rational states should have incentives to locate negotiated settlements that all would prefer to the gamble of war" (380). Why don't leaders reach "ex ante (prewar) bargains that would avoid the costs and risks of fighting?" It's not enough to show why armed conflict might happen, even between rational leaders--you must also show why a peaceful bargain won't happen first. This quotation from Gartze summaries Fearon's argument well:

"Fearon seeks to identify the causes of war that are consistent with the rationality assumption(s). He begins with two stylized observations. First, states often have incentives to compete. Second, certain modes of competition (such as war) are more costly than other methods (negotiation, bargaining). For states that compete through war, the loss in lives and property reduces the benefit or increases the burden of eventual settlements. Therefore, states are better off obtaining a given settlement without a costly contest. Rationalist explanations for war are then accounts of why states are unable to bargain and obtain settlements ex ante for which they settle ex post.
"Fearon's article deftly exposes the deductive flaws in realist and most contemporary rationalist explanations for international conflict. Fearon points out that, although both power and preferences are likely to influence the nature of settlements reached between competing parties, and in their absence can account for peace, such factors tell us little about why states choose to fight. Any variable likely to influence the conduct and consequences of war (such as power or resolve) that is knowable prior to the contest can simply be factored into a settlement that averts the need to fight. Indeed, even uncertainty about these variables does not necessitate war. States in competition must have incentives to bluff or deceive their opponents. Otherwise, states could resolve their uncertainty by simply sharing information."

The Real Puzzle

The puzzle that rationalists ought to be paying attention to is this: "In a rationalist framework...leaders have incentives to share...private information, which could have the effect of revealing peaceful settlements that lie within the bargaining range. So, to explain how war could occur...we need to explain what would prevent them from sharing such private information." (395)

Main Argument

Fearon identifies five arguments in the literature about war:

  1. anarchy;
  2. expected benefits exceed expected costs;
  3. rational preventive war;
  4. rational miscalculation due to lack of information;
  5. and rational miscalculation or disagreement about relative power.

According to Fearon, the first three don't explain why a bargain can't be reached. The latter two get at this, but don't explain why diplomacy or other communication couldn't be used to improve on the communication problems.

So what does resolve the puzzle? Fearon identifies three variables (with associated hypotheses) that explain the occurrence of war.

X1: Bluffing

Incentives to misrepresent information. To get the best outcome through bargaining, leaders have an incentive to exaggerate their resolve/capabilities (i.e. bluff) and to hide their weakness. (i.e. each leader tries to persuade the other to give in.) (see also Jervis 1988).

X2: Commitment Problems

Three commitment problems caused by anarchy. (a) The first-strike advantage increases the incentive to defect sooner in prisoner's dilemma bargaining. (b) If one state is declining relative to another, the rising power cannot credibly commit to benign hegemony once it is dominant over the declining power. Thus, the declining power has an incentive to wage pre-emptive war against a rising power (as long as the costs of war are less than the expected costs of further decline). (This sounds like hegemonic stability theory). (c) Most state conflicts occur over resources, which are the root of military capability. When bargaining over these resources (in an effort to avoid war), neither state can credibly commit to use resources gained through bargaining for only peaceful purposes; it might use them to increase its military power. Thus, the zero-sum nature of resources lowers the probability of successfully bargaining over them.

X3: Issue indivisibility

Many of the things that states bargain/fight over are not easily divisible. Fearon dismisses this problem, as states can easily make side payments or something.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Fearon, James (author)International RelationsWarRational ChoiceInformationCredible CommitmentAnarchyBargainingHegemony

Wikisum home: Index of all summaries by title, by author, or by subject.